In a recent video on leadership, Marshall Goldsmith, the renowned executive coach, pointed out that 80% of our success in learning from other people is based on our ability to listen. What he called the art of listening, I believe can be more properly referred to as a lost art.
Years ago I was sitting in Heathrow Airport, in the wee hours of the morning, waiting for a connecting flight out of London. Not having much to do, I asked a fellow traveler if I could borrow one of his books. He tossed me a very used paperback anthology of science fiction stories and, he told me I could keep it as he already had read the entire book. I thanked him and began reading some of the stories.
One story in that anthology I still remember to this day insofar as it made a lasting impression on me. Because he was having difficulty adapting to his society, the protagonist of the story was considered a freak by those around him. He seemed out of place when he tried to communicate with others as they all possessed an extrasensory mode of interacting. The story ended by showing how this individual, regarded by everyone as an alien, was different: He possessed the ability to hear, a sense that had been lost years earlier to modern man.
The above story came to mind when I heard John Lithgow, the actor, recite by heart, two stories, one from P.G. Woodhouse, and the other from Ring Lardner. In reciting these stories, he role played the personal mannerisms and expressions displayed by each character within the context of each of these stories. This allowed the contents of the story to be more immediate to the audience.
I have to say it was quite an experience listening to Mr. Lithgow perform on stage the two stories he chose, one of which, Haircut by Ring Lardner, I had read long ago. I wondered whether those people who attended this wonderful event were there to listen to the stories or simply to see a famous actor perform.
For many years, I have noticed that the art of listening has been on the decline. Sound bytes, from digital information in computing and telecommunications, have begun to change the way in which we had communicated, to one another, centuries earlier. These changes have reduced our auditory abilities, and so, I often find myself repeating to people what I just had said a moment earlier.
When I was in my teens 50 years ago, many of us would say you can’t trust anyone over 35. Given how younger people have been raised on this new technology, an integral part of the information age, I would choose now to say: You can’t trust anyone under 35. Young people, who are involved with customers, are constantly making mistakes. Instead of improving customer relations, the information age, I would maintain, has brought with it people, working for companies, that are more prone to mistakes than those who held similar jobs in the past.
As I am writing this article, my wife and I are presently experiencing, at this very moment, another error made: In this case, listening, in fact, was not a part of the equation. About 6 months ago, I booked a trip online with Jet Blue as the carrier. Upon printing our boarding passes the day before our departure, to both of our surprise, my wife did not have a seat assigned. This, in contradistinction, to the fact that when I originally made the reservations, we both had seats assigned. This mistake made it necessary for my wife to wait 30 to 40 minutes to speak to someone that would only begin to rectify the problem.
The above mistake was not due to the inability of an airline representative to listen. Rather, there simply was no listening involved. Here is a case where a tool of technology is replacing the need for the representatives of companies to have to listen. As computers have begun to replace the human ear, I would assert that people are gradually losing the ability to pay attention to the needs of others. Are we then approaching a world where only a freak of nature will still have the capacity to both hear and listen? O Brave New World!